Dinesh D’Souza has blogged here, in “Letting Bin Laden Define Islam,” about our debate yesterday. I am still at CPAC and don’t have much time to give a full answer, but since he repeats some familiar canards about me and my books, which I still think he shows no signs of having read despite his claims to the contrary, I thought I’d post some preliminary thoughts. For one thing, it is worth noting that he made exactly these points in the debate yesterday, and I answered them, but he takes no account here of the answers. Instead, he just continues to make the charges, as if I have said nothing in response at all. Personally, I don’t think this kind of thing is a very fruitful avenue for dialogue.
Yesterday I debated Robert Spencer at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in Washington D.C. The debate was aired live on C-Span. Our topic was essentially, Is Islam the Problem? My book The Enemy at Home says no, locating the problem in the way that liberal foreign policy and liberal values projected abroad have strengthened radical Islam and emboldened it to attack us. Spencer’s books collectively answer yes, the problem is with Islam itself.
But Islam has been around for 1300 years and the problem of Islamic terrorism is a recent one. How can Islam be to blame? For me the intelligent question is: what is it about Islam today that has made it an incubator of a certain kind of fanaticism and terrorism?
The idea that Islamic terrorism is a recent development is absurd in light of the history of Islamic jihad, including in D’Souza’s native India, where 70 million Hindus were killed by Islamic jihadists. D’Souza ignores the fact that today’s jihad terrorists are motivated by exactly the same ideology that fueled those jihad conquests. It is indeed resurgent in the last 25 years, but D’Souza has not, and cannot, point to any doctrinal deviation from traditional Islam by the jihadists that could account for this resurgence if it is indeed something new within Islam.
Spencer iwill have none of it. He is part of an influential strain of conservatives who blame the teachings and practice of Islam for producing Islamic terrorism. Since the terrorists do what they do on behalf of Islam, Islam must be the source of their convictions and therefore Islam needs to be examined, denounced and reformed. This is how Spencer thinks we can win the war on terror: by demanding that Muslims stop practicing Islam as it has been practiced since Muhammad.
Yes. A doctrine of warfare against unbelievers must be denounced and rejected if people are going to live in peace. I make no apologies for pointing that out. Any Muslim who sincerely rejects the doctrines of violent jihad and Islamic supremacism should have no problem with it either.
In arguing his thesis Spencer locates all the violent verses in the Koran and all the hideous deeds performed by Islamic conquerors, especially in their early centuries of irredentist expansion. Then he links these to the words and actions of Khomeini, Bin Laden and today’s Islamic radicals. Spencer is an effective polemicist.
Thanks, Dinesh. But here you breeze by what I pointed out yesterday: that all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence and all the orthodox sects teach warfare against unbelievers. If anyone is cherry-picking violent verses from the Qur’an, it is they, not I.
But his historical argument is dubious. It emphasizes violent passages in the Koran, while downplaying the passages that urge peace and goodwill.
Here D’Souza ignores another point I made: that traditional Islam — in all its schools — exalts the violent verses over the peaceful ones, and that is mainstream Islamic thought. This is the principle of naskh, or abrogation. It was not I who made it up.
It applies a moral standard to Islamic empires (they didn’t give minorities full rights! they reduced Jews and Christians to second class citizens!) that certainly could not be met by the Roman empire or the empires established by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French and the British. In the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella, for example, Jews had three choices: convert to Christianity, leave the country, or be killed. No Muslim empire legislated or systematically enforced such a policy toward its religious minorities. Yes, the Koran says “slay the infidels” but no Muslim empire actually did that. For example the Muslims ruled North India for two centuries before they were displaced by the British. The Mughal emperors could have killed the tens of millions of Hindus under their control or at least forced them to become Muslims? They did nothing of the sort.
This is historically false, as 70 million slaughtered Hindus can attest. But in any case, it is a historical fallacy (yes, tu quoque) to point to Europe and say it was no better. No one is talking about restoring medieval Europe. There is a global movement trying to restore Sharia.
Spencer glibly jumps over entire centuries in linking, say, the savagery of the Ottomans in Constantinople with the savagery of Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Taliban in Afghanistan. How different is Spencer’s one-sided reading of Islam from, say, the works of historian Bernard Lewis. Lewis is hardly uncritical of Islam. But he knows that world, speaks the local languages, and exhibits in his work a nuance, judiciousness and balance that, alas, I don’t find in Spencer or other conservative Islamophobes.
Lewis doesn’t do all he wishes he would do. In my prepared text, which I could not use because moderator Suhail Khan changed the format on me at the last minute, I included some quotes from Lewis which I suspect D’Souza has not read. I will post them asap.
It is Bin Laden’s argument that radical Islam is true Islam. It is Bin Laden’s contention that he is doing nothing more than what is commanded in the Koran and the Islamic tradition. And Robert Spencer essentially agress with Bin Laden! Spencer is willing to concede one of the world’s great religions–one with more than a billion adherents worldwide–to the murderers of Al Qaeda. At one point in our CPAC debate he asked me to name a traditional Muslim, as if such a creature scarcely exists in the world.
Nor did he name one when I asked him to. I call them cultural Muslims, and if he had actually read my books he would know that I know there are hundreds of millions of them. As I have pointed out many times, they do not have a theological leg to stand on within Islam, and they are on the theological defensive today everywhere in the Islamic world. As even D’Souza has pointed out, they have no theological and few political differences with the jihadists. So there may be some individuals and groups who can be worked with, but how can they be dependable allies in the aggregate? He can’t even name one besides a Hizballah supporter.
And as for supporting bin Laden, that’s just a cheap debater’s trick. Let him adduce some sect or school of Islam that disagrees with bin Laden’s theology as Osama himself has explained it, and we’ll talk.
Do we really want to go to war with a billion Muslims? If not, is it realistic to approach the Muslim world with the premise that the only good Muslim is a non-Muslim? Don’t all these Western attacks on Islam and the Koran and Muhammad, not to mention Spencer’s agreement with Bin Laden that Islam mandates violence and terrorism, have the effect of alienating traditional Muslims and pushing them toward the radical camp? These are my questions for Spencer, and for other conservatives who follow the same line. It’s time, I would urge these good folks, to reconsider some basic assumptions. Unfortunately you are part of the reason we are losing this war of ideas.
No, sir, you are part of the reason why we are losing this war of ideas, because you are not confronting the problem at its source. We don’t have to go to war with a billion Muslims. We do have to call upon Muslims of good will to stand up and distinguish themselves from the jihadists, repudiating or radically reinterpreting the traditional doctrines that the jihadists use to recruit and motivate terrorists.
Anyway, Mr. D’Souza, I’ll be glad to debate you again, anytime, anywhere.